Another of the Golden State Warriors’ key veterans has left in free agency, with Nemanja Bjelica joining Otto Porter Junior and Gary Payton II in departing the club after winning a title. Bjelica turned down an offer to return for the veteran’s minimum in order to sign with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahçe, the team where he won the EuroLeague MVP back in 2015 and led his team to the EuroLeague Final Four.
Bjelica was a key reserve last season, providing spacing with his excellent outside shooting and playing stout defense that defied the eye test. Belli isn’t the quickest big man, but he was excellent at occupying space in the lane and contesting shots inside. His playing time fluctuated throughout the season and the playoffs, depending on the matchup - big minutes against Nikola Jokic and Boogie Cousins in the Denver series, barely seeing the floor against quick Grizzlies bigs in the Memphis series, then coming out of mothballs with 22 huge minutes in the Warriors closeout game against Dallas. In Game Five, Bjelica somehow stoned Luka Doncic on multiple possessions, shredded the Mavericks’ defense with his passing, and then hit a deep dagger three to effectively end the game with eight minutes left.
The fancy passing was the most impressive and the most frustrating of Belli’s season on the Warriors. He threw some amazing passes and he also threw some amazingly ill-advised passes this year, averaging 2.2 assists but 1.2 turnovers per game. Bjelica seemed to love playing in the Warriors motion offense, and mid-season said, “I enjoy every single day, because finally I found a spot where I feel comfortable and very happy.” One happy element of Bjelica’s creative passing is that he was always ready to catch an ambitious pass from anyone else and finish it home.
Bjelica became just the fourth Serbian player to win a championship this season, after Darko Miličić, Peja Stojaković, and Warriors legend Ognjen Kuzmić. He didn’t play a ton in the Finals, but his defense on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown was huge in the pivotal Game Four win.
Now he’ll take that winning tradition back to Istanbul, where he’ll be playing alongside former Oregon star Tyler Dorsey and Devin Booker (not THAT Devin Booker) for a Fenerbache team that’s trying to make it back to the Final Four - Bjelica led them there for the first time seven years ago, before leaving for the NBA. Belli played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Miami Heat, and the Sacramento Kings before coming to the Warriors. He actually had a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2018 before backing out in order to play in Europe, and then changing his mind again and signing with the Kings. So barring intervention from a master negotiator like Vlade Divac, Bejlica is gone.
In a way, the Warriors have become like a great college basketball program. They’re always going to compete in the post-season, they’ve got a universally-respected coach, a loyal fan base, and they even have a robust alumni program, with former beloved players like Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston getting jobs on the team, and even former unloved players like Mike Dunleavy Jr. sticking around. And like a great college program, they’re now forced to adjust to a “one-and-done” era. Sure, they can recruit talents to come and play for little compensation, just like Coach K, Dean Smith, and John Wooden did. The veteran’s minimum is the new athletic scholarship. But like these programs, they also have to confront the new reality of the “one-and-done” era. These players want to win, but they’re also not going to stick around when they can make way more money elsewhere.
That means Bob Myers, having struck gold with his minimum veterans last year, must hit the recruiting trail again, checking out scouting reports, advanced stats, and in rare cases, YouTube mix tapes, in order to compete with the other contenders’ recruiting classes. They’ll be sure to offer Andre Iguodala an extra year - I think he missed enough games that the 2021-22 season qualifies as a redshirt year.
They’re clearly hoping first-round pick Patrick Baldwin’s shooting can one day give them a Belli-like boost, just like they hope Ryan Rollins can eventually replace GPII’s defense, but for now, they need to find a few one-and-done free agent forwards who can shoot the three. Don’t worry - Joe Lacob has a very generous policy when it comes to Name, Image, and Likeness rights, and the Warriors season-ticket holders/boosters have something even better than free cars: Stock tips about tech IPOs.